The Liberty Cap, Fall 2001

George W. Morrow, Class of 1798 - "Record Unknown"
Daniel J. Heisey

“Record unknown”— Thus appears the Alumni Record of 1905 regarding George W. Morrow.1   The source for this lack of record (the paradox is deliberate) is the list of members of the Belles Lettres Society, wherein is noted Morrow’s name and the year of 1797.2   There is, however, a fuller record of Morrow and his brief sojourn at Dickinson.

On Wednesday, April 11, 1798, the local newspaper published the obituary of George W. Morrow.  It is worth quoting in full:

On Sunday last departed this life, Mr. George Morrow, a student in Dickinson College—Mr. Morrow is from the state of North Carolina, and was in the prime of life—about two weeks ago, he was seized with the small pox, which proved his death—He is regretted by all his fellow Students, and all the citizens who had an opportunity of his acquaintance; and his death must prove a melancholy tiding to his parents and friends. 3
Aside from the sad fact of the young man contracting a now preventable disease, of interest is Morrow’s origins.  Prior to him, only two other Dickinsonians are known to have been from North Carolina.

In the Class of 1790 one finds Robert Gilleland Wilson (1768-1851), a native of Lincoln County, North Carolina.  From 1794 until 1805 he was a Presbyterian pastor in his home state.4   In the Class of 1792 was James Gilleland (1769-1845), also from Lincoln County, North Carolina.  Like Wilson, he became a Presbyterian minister, first in South Carolina, then in Kentucky.5   He may be related to a James Gilleland, Jr., of South Carolina, a member of Dickinson’s Class of 1799.  That Gilleland was also a Presbyterian minister.6   Both Gillelands were members of the Belles Lettres Society.

Travel between south central Pennsylvania and western North Carolina was not unheard of.  As early as 1746, John Hoge and other Pennsylvanians had settled near the Catawba River.  In 1758, Alexander Craighead, a Presbyterian missionary in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, assumed the pastorate of the Presbyterian church at Rocky River, North Carolina.  Until 1766, when he died, Craighead was the only Presbyterian pastor in Mesopotamia, the local name for “the land between the rivers Yadkin and Catawba.”7   Southerners sent their sons to Dickinson, conveniently located in the northern part of the Shenandoah valley, although the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, so devastating to Philadelphia, made Southern students fear returning to college in Carlisle.8

It will be remembered that Dickinson was at the time affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.  The principal, Charles Nisbet, was a Presbyterian minister from Montrose, Scotland, and he was the associate pastor at the Presbyterian meetinghouse on the square in Carlisle.  The pastor of that church, now known as the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, was Robert Davidson, and he was also vice-principal of Dickinson.  There he was unpopular with the students, being vain and pedantic; he required all students to buy and memorize his text book on geography, composed in rhyming verse.9

In October 1794, he delivered a strong sermon in favor of the new federal government.  The occasion was the presence of militia in Carlisle en route to face down the Whiskey rebels of western Pennsylvania.  In attendance of Davidson’s sermon was the Commander-in-Chief, President George Washington.  Davidson and his church enjoyed attention of a less martial — but perhaps more political — nature when in 1792 and 1795 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church convened in Carlisle.  Carlisle was chosen because “some Western Presbyteries had become wearied of the long journey to Philadelphia.”10

On Saturday, October 7, 1797, a George Morrow, along with twelve others, was “admitted to the Lord's Table” at the (now) First Presbyterian Church.11   It is not clear that this George Morrow is the same as George W. Morrow of Dickinson College, but the new communicant has beside his name the word “before,” indicating that he had been “admitted to the Lord's Table” elsewhere.  This reading of “before” is confirmed by an entry for May 24, 1798:  “James Gilleland Studt. From S. Carolina, admitted before.”  That George Morrow is not described as being from North Carolina is not odd; on September 22, 1790, the church records among its communicants simply, “James Gilleland Studt. before.”

Given these scanty facts, a sketch may be suggested.  George W. Morrow was born around 1780 in the hills of western North Carolina, probably in Lincoln County, a region comprising the current counties of Lincoln, Catawba, and Gaston.  It was, in the recollection of William A. Graham (1804-1875), “far removed from the corruptions of a seaport and the luxurious effeminacy incident to more commercial communities.”12   The United States Census of 1790 found 9,234 people, of whom 8,289 were of European descent and 935 were “negro slaves.”13

In North Carolina Morrow, like Graham after him, would have attended a rural academy and received the beginnings of a classical education.  A history of the area, however, reports, perhaps with some exaggeration, that “in 1794 there were not more than three schools in the State in which the rudiments of a classical education could be acquired.”14   Admission to Dickinson then required a basic knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics; in 1796 the trustees decreed that “Students in the Grammar School shall be taught Lat[in] Grammar,…Aesops Fables, Erasmus,…Ovids Metamorph[oses], Caesars Com[mentaries], Virgil, the Greek Testament.”15   One may infer that students coming to Dickinson from other grammar schools would have been expected to have run such a course — a curriculum, it should be noted, not unlike that enjoyed by Shakespeare.16   Morrow’s education apparently was excellent; as a member of the Class of 1798 whose earliest records in Carlisle date to the autumn of 1797, he must have matriculated as a junior.

Once at Dickinson, Morrow would have studied “Lucian, Xenophon, Homer, Horace, Sallust, Cicero, Juvenal, & Arithmatic.”17   Morrow’s teachers would have been Robert Davidson for history and geography, James McCormick for mathematics, and William Thomson for Latin and Greek.18   Morrow also would have attended Charles Nisbet’s lectures on moral philosophy and literary criticism.  Morrow’s membership in one of the College’s two debating societies indicates a gregarious nature as well as an interest in literature.  The other society, the Union Philosophical Society, tended to address what today would be called the social sciences.

Since the College was then still using the old grammar school — “small and shabby … fronting on a dirty alley,” one student recalled19 — students boarded with the professors, James McCormick and his wife putting up at least eight at a time.  Students played games in the lot behind the school, and students were few enough in number to enjoy close friendships.  A member of the Class of 1795 remarked upon “the strong attachments which boys of good feelings form to one another, when they have been long daily companions in study and in play” as he remembered his days at Dickinson and in the Belles Lettres Society.20

Moreover, membership in one of the societies prepared students for viva voce examinations.  In June 1797, the Board of Trustees noted it “highly approves the Quarterly Public Examinations of the Students & their Public exhibition in Oratory.”21   When combined with native talent and ambition, this education served students well; among Morrow’s classmates were George Metzger (1782-1879), a lawyer and legislator who bequeathed money for the Metzger Institute, and John Bannister Gibson (1780-1853), future Chief Justice of Pennsylvania.

George W. Morrow was likely a Presbyterian, devout enough to seek membership at the Presbyterian church near his college, and thereby giving Carlisle “citizens…an opportunity of his acquaintance.”  His last resting-place is not known; his name is absent from any lists of cemeteries in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.  According to William Floyd, the Old White Church, the oldest church in Lincoln County, North Carolina, has in its graveyard a George W. Morrow, but that man lived from June 26, 1798, to October 2, 1835.22

George W. Morrow may have been related to the Dickinsonians who preceded him from North Carolina.  In the late eighteenth century in America middle names were not yet commonplace, and they tended to be the mother’s maiden name.  It is suggestive to find James Gilleland, Robert Gilleland Wilson, and George W. Morrow, Presbyterians from the same county and belonging to the same college.  Of course, Morrow’s middle initial may simply stand for Washington.  Even if there were no genealogical relation, it is possible that Wilson was Morrow’s pastor back home and encouraged the young man to pursue his studies — perhaps with an eye towards the pulpit — at Wilson’s alma mater, then so prominent in national and ecclesiastical news.

1.  George Leffingwell Reed, ed., Alumni Record of Dickinson College  (Carlisle:  Dickinson College, 1905) 49.

2.  Belles Lettres Society Catalogue of Members, 1786-1880, bound MS, Dickinson College Archives.

3. [Untitled obituary], Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette (11 April, 1798) 3.

4. Reed, ed., Alumni Record, 40.

5.  Ibid., 41.  His middle name, though spelled Gilliland, is found in Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders, 1683-1911 (New York:  Neale Publishing Co., 1911; repr. Edinburgh:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000) 246.

6.  Ibid., 50.  See White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders, 247:  “About the same time [c.1800] James Gilliland, Jr., conducted a classical school in Spartanburg.”

7.  White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders, 75.  For Craighead in Cumberland County, see Alfred Nevin, Churches of the Valley (Philadelphia:  Joseph M. Wilson, 1852) 48, 63

8.  Jane Maienschein, “‘Don’t Stop in Carlisle’:  Reactions to Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic,” John & Mary’s Journal VII (Fall, 1982) 11.

9.  Samuel Tyler, Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney, LL.D., (Baltimore:  John Murphy & Co., 1872) 41-42.

10.  Conway P. Wing, A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, PA.  (Carlisle:  Valley Sentinel Office, 1877) 135.

11.  First Presbyterian Church Records, Book II (1785-1919) 92, 108; cf. Ibid, Book III, 198.

12.  Quoted in Max R. Williams, “The Education of William A. Graham,” The North Carolina Historical Review XL.1 (January, 1963) 5.

13.  William L. Sherrill, Annals of Lincoln County, North Carolina (Charlotte: The Observer Printing House, 1937) 58.

14.  Sherrill, Annals of Lincoln County, North Carolina, 450.

15.  Dickinson College Trustee Minutes, vol. I, page 221 (26 April, 1796); bound MS, Dickinson College Archives.  By “Erasmus” was meant one or more of his Colloquia Familiaria.

16.  See A. L. Rowse, William Shakespeare:  A Biography (New York:  Harper & Row, 1963) 34-41; cf. A. L. Rowse, What Shakespeare Read and Thought (New York:  Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1981) 8-12.  See also Craig R. Thompson, Schools in Tudor England (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1958) 24.

17.  Trustee Minutes, I, 222.

18.  See Charles Coleman Sellers, Dickinson College:  A History (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 1973) 507.

19.  Tyler, Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney, 38.

20.  Ibid., 50.

21.  Trustee Minutes, I, 232.

22.  W. D. Floyd, “Old White Church Cemetery,”; for Old White Church, see Sherrill, Annals of Lincoln County, North Carolina, 458

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